Bluebird Lane Blog
Bluebird Lane Blog

The Paradox of the Growing Heap

by Lori Albrough

There’s this philosophical argument called Sorites Paradox, also known as the paradox of the heap. Sorites (pronounced so-rite-ees) is a Greek word that simply means “heaped up”. The argument goes like this:

Suppose someone dumps a large sack of rice on the table. So on the table sits one heap of rice. Now suppose you take one grain of rice away, and set it at the other end of the table. How many heaps are there now? One grain of rice can’t be said to be a heap, so there is still just one heap, the original one. Now take another grain of rice, and relocate it to the new spot. We get the same conclusion, two grains is not a heap. The same with a third grain, and a fourth. In fact, there is never a certain grain of rice that makes us say, “NOW the new grouping is a heap!”, or, “Now the old grouping is NOT a heap!” No one grain of rice can be said to be the one that makes the difference.

Using simple logic from true premises with uncontroversial reasoning, we can prove that one grain is both not a heap and that it is a heap. That’s the paradox. But there’s something more interesting going on here, so follow along for a little while longer. I’ve also heard Sorites paradox summarized in this way:

If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.

That way of phrasing the paradox of the heap got my attention, because it applies so well to training. Think about it. All training is made up of many small, seemingly inconsequential actions. Each time you do the work and get a positive result, it is like putting a coin in a jar. Over time, your jar becomes more and more full. This analogy applies to training your horse, training your body, any kind of training.

Because any one instance is inconsequential, it is easy to blow off the importance in your mind, by saying, “What does it matter if I skip one day?” And the truth is, it doesn’t matter all that much. Each instance in itself has a very small effect, but added up together, they represent something very significant indeed. It is the habitual pattern that gets you fit, or gets your horse to the next level, or achieves a healthy diet or a meditation practice.

If you are tempted to blow off your fitness for the day, or your horse training, remember the growing heap. And also remember this bit of folk wisdom, “If you only have time for oatmeal, oatmeal is better than no meal.” Meaning, do what you can, with what you have, where you are, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Even a small coin added to the heap will add up to a significant pile over time.


4 Responses to “The Paradox of the Growing Heap”

  1. sue freivald wrote:

    Your comments on the “heap” effect is the story of my life — both with respect to my horse(s) and other aspects of life! And it was a lovely affirmation. One can only do what one can, with what one has, where one is at any given time. Making the most of that includes cherishing the possibilities and not chastising oneself for what is beyond one’s control!

    As a wife, mother, grandmother and “owner” of a lovely Fjord mare I have priorities and choices to make every single day. Before I retired, throw into that education and the practice of medicine. Sometimes things just hit the ground because there is no realistic alternative.

    So be gentle with yourself, do what you can with joy, appreciate the results, and don’t grieve over what is beyond your capabilities. Always strive to be better and to grow in all areas of your life. Live in the present, look to the future and be gentle with yourself — even as you strive for growth! Balance. It is almost always about balance.

    Sue Freivald

  2. Judy wrote:

    Hi Lori, I loved this and it is perfect to hopefully help motivate my daughter who has been struggling with depression and illness. Sometimes she can’t even get herself out to ride (and she loves to ride) but if I can just get her started she won’t want to stop.

  3. Kari wrote:

    Hi Lori, Thanks for this article, very inspiring … helps make sense out of life … just what I needed right now!

  4. 15 exemplos de paradoxos que vão te surpreender - Strangers pay wrote:

    […] de Sorites refere-se à imprecisão da linguagem. Também conhecido como o paradoxo da pilhatrata-se de um “monte” de areia, que é um termo vago e sem significado […]

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